HC Deb 22 March 1976 vol 908 cc19-21
14. Mr. Banks

asked the Secretary of State for Energy how many oil companies operating in the North Sea have stated publicly or in communications to his Department that they are not yet prepared to enter into discussions in detail with the Government on participation in the North Sea.

Mr. Benn

No companies have told me or my Department that they will refuse to discuss participation with the Government.

Mr. Banks

Is it not the case that Government meddling in North Sea oil has delayed progress and investment, exhausted the confidence and enthusiasm of the companies, and cost the taxpayers a great deal of money?

Mr. Benn

No. The hon. Gentleman is wrong on all counts. The rate of investment last year was higher than the year before and will be higher again this year. The participation talks are in progress. If BNOC were to take advantage of the options open to it, including the option for royalty oil, it would have available to it in the 1980s between 15 million and 20 million tons of oil. The plain truth is that after a year of wringing their hands the Opposition are seeing every forecast they have made turn out to be totally false.

Mr. Skinner

Is it not a fact that one of the leading spokesmen connected with the Esso oil company has publicly intimated that he will not voluntarily participate in any agreement with the Government? Will my right hon. Friend assure the House that the Gulf-Conoco deal—which gives a State option only to buy 51 per cent. of the oil and does not give 51 per cent. of the power—will not be a pattern that will be carried through in any further negotiations in which my right hon. Friend may be involved?

Mr. Benn

I read the report in the Financial Times on the day I had lunch with the President of Exxon when he was in this country. No such reference was made to me. The House should not mistake a negotiating position for the true position. My hon. Friend has referred to the Gulf-Conoco type of deal, in which the Coal Board is already a one-third participant to equity and investment with the other partners. If we take the examples of Burmah, the acquisition of Ninian and the control of Thistle, that is an acquisition of equity. With Tricentrol it is an arrangement of a different kind. The House will recognise that in advancing our policy of getting control of 51 per cent. of these resources the Government should be free to adopt whatever system seems most appropriate in individual cases.

Mr. Alexander Fletcher

Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that companies that have made major and effective contributions to the development of the North Sea oil resources but are not prepared to enter into voluntary negotiations will not be discriminated against in the next licensing round?

Mr. Bean

There never has been any discrimination in terms of nationality, nor will there be in the next round of licences. I must make some things clear. First, the Government are determined that their policy will succeed. There is no doubt about our determination, which is fully understood by the companies concerned. Secondly, from the outset it was made clear that participation would not be designed to alter the financial advantages of the companies. That is being dealt with by the petroleum revenue tax. Thirdly, many American companies prefer the British system of participation either to confiscation, as in the case of some countries, or the threat of divestiture, as in the United States.

Mr. Biffen

Does the right hon. Gentleman recollect that, when he addressed the Overseas Writers Club in Washington in February, he said that he recognised the legitimate interests of the oil companies and understood their anxieties? May we assume that the participation deals with Gulf, Continental and Tricentrol, which do not add at all to State equity, are attempts to assuage those anxieties?

Mr. Benn

The hon. Gentleman should not overlook the fact that we inherited from a Government of which he was not a member an arrangement with North Sea oil which betrayed our national interest. We have sought to remedy that with licences that were already contracted with certain companies. In dealing with licences entered into by the previous Government we have sought to make arrangements that will safeguard our interests. That is fully understood by the oil companies. We need the investment and technology to develop the North Sea. We have no intention whatever of falling back on the policies that the Conservative Party tried and which did this country so much harm.